Who’s Minding Your Tools

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by Mary Scianna

Tool management can lead to big cost savings on the shop floor


How often does this scenario happen in your shop: Your machinist has just finished a job and is about to set up for a new order, but he can’t find the new inserts and toolholders required for the job. He spends the next two hours searching the shop for the tooling and finds them tucked away in a drawer in the plant manager’s office.

“We recently did a demo with a customer and he said that his biggest problem was with his workers spending 20 to 30 per cent of the time wandering around trying to find tools,” says Tim Marlatt, Matrix integration manager for CTMS, an IMC Group business, which also owns Iscar Tools, Oakville, ON.

Tool management systems are not new; they have been in use in Europe for more than a decade, but North American manufacturers have been slow to adopt them in their shops, say suppliers. That’s changing though, according to Kevin Duncalf, product manager for TM vending systems from Guhring, Brookfield, WI.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in customers of all sizes in the US and in Canada for these systems. The TM systems we sell have been available for over ten years and they’ve very popular in Germany, but in NA, that has not been the case.”

Tool management, or their broader cousins, inventory management systems, which could include other machine shop consumables and materials, are typically located in an enclosed tool crib that allows different access levels to different shop floor employees, depending on their status in the company (e.g. a plant floor manager may have access to a wider level of inventory than a lathe operator). Increasingly many of these systems, particularly cutting tool management systems, are being placed closer to the CNC machines for quicker access.

While the benefits of tool management may seem obvious to some, the fact that these systems have been slow to be adopted in North America indicate that not everyone is aware of the benefits, and more importantly, the cost savings, they can bring to a shop floor.

Managers achieve a level of control on the shop floor, says Magnum Tillman, manager, Seco Business Solutions, Troy, MI, which sells the Seco Point tool management systems. “The customer will know immediately who took what and for what reason. He can track usages to individual jobs, work centres, shifts or machines. With this level of control, he can manage information in order to streamline his production. This will ultimately lead to cost savings.”

Smarter inventory management
There are many suppliers of tool management systems offering an array of dispensing and vending type machines, but what truly differentiates a tool management system is the software, according to some industry suppliers.

“Software drives inventory management. If a system isn’t helping you then it’s not solving the problem,” says Jerry Battley, manager of Integrated Solutions, a division of Thomas Skinner that supplies inventory management solutions and is the Western Canadian distributor for CribMaster systems. “There are tremendous efficiencies that can be achieved with the right technology.”

A growing trend is tying in tool management processes into ERP systems to provide manufacturers with more information, in real time, about how tooling and other shop consumables are being used on the shop floor.

While some suppliers are trending toward offering more machining and cutting data at the inventory management machines, others, such as Integrated Solution’s Battley, say while in theory it’s good information to make accessible to machine operators, “I have yet to see a machinist that spends the time to read this information. It’s a solution you sell to management but in general, for most machinists, when they know what they’re looking for they either know it visually or by name. That’s not the information they need. What’s more important on an inventory management system is information about the inventory, [such as] who has it, who has returned it, and when something needs to be replenished.”

Battley cites CribMaster’s point-of-use-equipment and RFID devices.

“Many systems are literally candy bar vending machines and several go beyond this concept to help manufacturers reduce tool consumption and costs and increase plant efficiencies.”

For instance the CribMaster Accu-Port is a generation two passive issue-RFID solution Integrated Solutions installed in a BC helicopter MRO facility (read the sidebar on page 78). All the tools and employees were tagged with RFID tags. Now, when an employee comes to the fenced off locked door of the tool crib, the system scans the badge and if the employee has permission to enter the crib, the system unlocks the door. The employee picks up the tool and the software system records the transaction. Everything is done in real time, automatically.

Such a system can’t prevent expensive tooling and other valuable material from going missing, but because of the visibility of the system–employees are aware that they’re accountable for the tools they take–it does mean that when a tool goes missing, it can be tracked down to an individual.

Such systems also have built-in monitoring programs that track inventory levels and alert the supplier when it is time to replenish the unit with specific tools.

Tim Marlatt of CTMS, which sells the Matrix tool management systems for IMC Group, says in the past five years software for inventory management has become more advanced.

“Suppliers are now adding more functionality in the software. Five years ago a user would get a report about what items were in the system and what had come out. Now suppliers are adding options such as controls for gauging for ISO or for calibration standards, serializing of the tooling for tracking usage, and generally expanding the information for the user. For instance, the Matrix software has drawings to identify a tool and even diagrams that illustrate how a specific holder, tool and screw go together.” SMT

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